Armpit or underarm pain can be caused by a number of things that include pinched nerve, pregnancy, cancer, swollen armpits and lymph nodes, muscle twitch, breastfeeding, waxing, cystic pimple, cancer, among other causes.
Armpit pain refers to the aching, throbbing, stinging, twinging, and soreness, tenderness or general physical discomfort in and around your axilla area.
It could be a dull or sharp (i.e. mild or stabbing), on both armpits (bilateral), right and left(i.e. under and under your right armpit) be reflective pain which is the kind that emanates elsewhere but it is felt at another point.
Furthermore, it could extend to other nearby areas such as breast i.e. breast, shoulder, chest, on the upper arm, down the arm, etc.
In terms of who can be affected, it affects people of all age sets and genders i.e. children and adults as well as male and female.
However, there are some specific causes that related to women or men. For instance, if it related to breastfeeding, it could be a problem that affects women and not men! Finally, it might be constant or comes and goes depending on what actually caused it.
The obvious symptom or sign is the aching, throbbing, stinging or general discomfort itself. This could be accompanied by other symptoms such as swelling, redness, inflammation, muscle weakness, reduced mobility, tenderness, lumps, numbness, skin discoloration, bruising, and “shoulder, arm, hand or finger pain,” [healthgrades.com] among others.
Some serious and life-threatening symptoms that require emergency treatment include respiratory issues ( short breath, breathing difficulties, wheezing or choking), hemorrhage or excessive bleeding, paralysis, bone exposed on the skin surface, intense stabbing armpit pain as well as chest tightness, pressure, palpitation.
Note: The actual symptoms you will have will be tied to the specific cause of your painful armpits. You might have a few of the symptoms we have mentioned or have different ones.
Pain under armpit causes
There are many possible reasons why you are experiencing it. We are going to discuss some of the most common causes. Not to overemphasis, ensure you see your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment recommendation. So what are some of the reasons why you suffer from it?
1. Hidradenitis (inflamed or infected sweat glands and hair follicles)
Sometimes you might experience pain not only on your armpits but also on your groin, under the breast and buttock areas due to infection and inflammation of hair follicles as well as nearby sweat glands (apocrine glands) i.e. “hair follicles and nearby apocrine glands (sweat glands) on the underarms, groin, buttocks and under the breasts become infected and inflamed” [hopkinsmedicine.org].
This is due to clogging and the inability of dead skin cells to be pushed out, providing a good environment for bacteria to breed.
The end result is cyst formation that resembles a thick and large painful pimple that often cause scarring, sinus tracts, severe itching, as well as depression. Hidradenitis is more prevalent in women (4 times more than men), African American, obese and smokers. Treatment is by oral medication, laser hair removal as well as cyst removal.
This is the inflammation, swelling or enlargement of lymph nodes or glands “often in response to bacteria, viruses, or fungi” [nlm.nih.gov] infection that can result in an underarm that hurts.
It happens on the site nearest to the infected, inflamed or tumorous site. If it is close to your armpits, you will have swollen armpit lymph nodes that will be painful too.
3. Acid reflux or and heartburn
GERD or acid reflux refers to “condition that occurs when stomach acids and other stomach contents back up into the esophagus through the lower esophageal sphincter” [healthline.com]. It has a number of symptoms that could be mild or severe that are common when bending or lying over, after a heavy meal or after a spicy or fatty food.
Some of the common symptoms include heartburn, sour taste, regurgitation, dyspepsia, swallowing difficulties, sore throat, dry cough, asthma symptoms. Emergency symptoms include “pain radiating through your left arm, shoulder, back, neck, or jaw” [Healthline.com], shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, sweating, chest pains, tightening, crushing or squeezing feeling in your chest among others.
3. Underarm cysts or pimples
These are “closed pockets of tissue that can be filled with fluid, pus or other material” [webmd.com] which are mostly do not hurt but can hurt if infected. Having cystic pimple or bumps can also cause this problem. Read more on underarm cysts including their causes and treatments.
4. Muscle strains
It is possible to suffer from very painful underarms or armpits after a workout, some sleeping positions, or picking something. This due to pulled or strained pectoralis muscles (minor and major). Treatment should include alternating cold and warm compresses, use of anti-inflammatory and non-steroid medications.
Herpes zoster, otherwise known as shingles is a varicella-zoster viral infection responsible for painful rash anywhere on the body but is common on right or left side of body trunk. If you have an eruption near your armpit, you might end up with underarm burning pain
Besides them hurting, other common symptoms you will have include tingling or burning sensation, numbness, a red rash (comes after a few days of experiencing the pain), blisters filled with fluid that bursts then crusts as a result of itching, headache, fever, fatigue, etc.
Anxiety is often associated this problem since it results in rapid heart rate, shaking, sweating and irritation; all which might cause this problem in some way i.e. rapid heart rate and shaking strain chest muscles and making them feel achy while sweating will cause irritation which can cause burning and itching (burning and itching can make your underarm painful.
6. Brachial plexus nerve injuries - Shooting pain
Pinched nerves especially brachial plexus from stretching, pressure or trauma can lead to this problem. This is often accompanied by numbness and tingling feeling and pain that resemble electric pulses.
Various issues such as chicken pox in adults, deficiency of vitamin B complex, etc. can result in neuropathy. “Neuropathy issues occur when there is shooting pain radiation from your underarm to the inner section of your elbow” [orgclinic.com]. Minor nerve damages are what produces it too.
7. Breast cancer and lymphoma
Breast cancer often causes cancerous armpit lumps as well as hardened spots near your breast. When you have breast cancer, you will have other symptoms such as n1pple discharges (clear or bloody), changes in breast size or shape, dimpling of breast skin, rash on or around your n1pple or changes in its appearance.
Besides breast cancer, it could also it due to lymphoma. This is cancer a type of white blood cells known as lymphocytes. It develops in your lymphatic system and lymph nodes and you are likely to have swellings on your neck, leg and groin lymph nodes. Other symptoms will include fever, sudden weight loss, cough, breathlessness, heavy sweating, loss of appetite, fatigue, etc.
Another possible cause is Angina which is “a term used for chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart muscle” [mayoclinic.org] often a symptom of someone suffering from a coronary artery disease.
When you suffer from angina, you might have some painful underarms, neck, shoulder, chest as well as other symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, and nausea. Women might have slightly different symptoms especially chest pressure.
9. Glandular infection
Poor armpit hygiene, excessive sweating or exposure too much heat can cause bacterial infection of sweat glands. This will result in boils or hardened patches that will be accompanied with some dull radiated pain from your armpits.
10. Peripheral artery disease
This is a condition or disease where arteries leading to leg, arm or any other arteries except those found in the brain and near the heart are narrowed or obstructed. This leads to reduced blood flow in the affected arteries. When you have this problem on arteries near your arm, a shooting or sharp pain is possible.
11. Breast infection
Infection of the breast tissue especially by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria or mastitis can cause pain in the breast as well as under your underarms because a small part of the breast tissue extends into the armpit area.
Other common symptoms will include a lump, itching, discharge, swelling, redness, etc. of breast and n1pple as well as enlarged lymph nodes. Most mothers often suffer from breast infection during breastfeeding. Ensure you take care, and keep proper personal hygiene during this time.
Using crutches can result in this problem due to the friction that can make your underarm sore i.e. you are likely to end up with burning painful feeling. It is advisable to keep your underarm off your crutch pad, use a tighter arm grip assisted with your torso, spread effort around your body and make your routines much simpler.
Swollen armpits is an obvious cause. The swelling might also affect normal hand mobility and worsen the pain as you move your hands.
Underarm waxing and another shaving technic can often result into sore armpits or a burning underarm pain. When waxing armpits, ensure the hair is long enough, scrub and dry them before waxing. Painkillers, waxing the right way, and after waxing care is necessary.
15. During pregnancy
During early pregnancy, some women have reported underarm pain often accompanied by a tender breast. For instance, one lady had this to say on a forum, “last night I started feeling a very sore spot (no bump) under my left arm that extends down my arm ways. It hurts a lot when I raise my arm” [community.babycenter.com]. What followed was similar experiences from any other women while in their early pregnancy.
The underarm soreness during early pregnancy is associated with hormonal changes as well as tenderness of breast i.e. “highly sensitive breasts can reflect armpit pain” [livestrong.com]
16. During breastfeeding
It is normal to have pain in breast and armpit while breastfeeding. Some people have reported it to be the shooting type as they are breastfeeding. This is due to mainly breast engorgement when you produce more milk than can be expelled or, when you have an infection such as mastitis (common during breastfeeding), wearing a bad nursing bra, as well as poor breastfeeding positions i.e. not holding the baby well to avoid pulling breast down.
17. Other Causes
Besides the above underarm reasons, other possible reasons why you could be having include:
- Allergies - The use of some soaps, antiperspirants or deodorant can cause the underarm skin allergic reaction and consequently swelling, pain as well as redness.
- Common cold – Common cold aches are known to cause pain not only on the armpits but entire body as well. You are likely to have underarm discomfort if your upper respiratory tract is infected too.
- Shoulder dislocation – Shoulder dislocation can cause sharp armpit and arm pain, weakens, numbness, swelling. It might also cause nerve damages.
- Viral infections – “Infections such as AIDS, chickenpox, typhoid, measles and other infections caused by a virus can cause a dull pain in the armpit” [med-health.net]. Such might be accompanied by other symptoms such as a sore throat, fever, body aches, among others.
- Connective tissue degeneration – When this happens in the armpit areas, you might have pain that is not accompanied by any lumps and it will often be worse when you stretch or move your arms.
- Diabetes – Excess sugar levels in the blood due to untreated diabetes can lead to peripheral neuropathy which “involves excess glucose injuring small blood vessels related to the nerves and pain in the given area, such as the armpit” [enkivillage.com].
- Swollen lymph nodes or armpit lumps – swollen armpit lymph nodes can cause tenderness, soreness, lumps, skin redness, etc.
- Armpit tattoo – This is a temporary during the process and shortly after having an underarm tattoo.
Other conditions that possibly this problem include sporotrichosis (can cause a rash or lump in armpit), hyperthyroidism (can cause painful and swollen glands including in underarms), growths, pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS), skin abscesses, infectious mononucleosis, deep vein thrombosis, armpit lumps, irritant contact dermatitis, bumps, cerebrovascular accidents, after some vaccinations e.g. pain in armpit after tetanus shot among other causes.
Sharp, stabbing or shooting pain
Sometimes you might be suffering from sharp pain under the armpit, which could be on the right or left side. This pain is often described as ‘sharp stabbing ’, or ‘sharp shooting ’ or ‘and it can be sudden, affecting your right or left armpits, be near your breast, go up to your shoulder, down the arm and even to the fingers. Men and woman (male or female) can suffer from sharp or shooting pain.
Some of the common causes neuropathy issues (pinched nerve especially if you have a sharp shooting pain that resembles electric pulses i.e. throbbing ), “cerebrovascular accident, heartburn, peripheral artery disease, or a swollen underarm lymph node” [livestrong.com].
Besides the above, another possible cause of sudden sharp pain in armpit area or near armpits could be angina. This will be accompanied by sharp pain in left armpit, chest and shoulder pain, among other symptoms, already mentioned.
Finally, shooting pain in armpit has been associated with pregnancy, chest pain and later stages of lymphoma.
On left armpit
This kind of pain scares many people due to the fact that the heart is located on that side of your chest. Most people tend to assume the cause heart attack or heart-related problem. Yes, that could be one of the causes but there are many other possible causes.
Depending on the cause, could be severe (sharp, shooting, stabbing), slight (mild or dull), burning, pinching or aching (throbbing). It could also extend to nearby areas including your back, arm, breast or chest area, shoulders, down the arm or even extend to your fingers.
Both male and female can experience it i.e. female and male and the causes could be the same or different.
Any of the causes we have discussed can be responsible if it affects just one side of your armpit (not bilateral ) and for this case, the left side. Problems such as pinched nerve, pulled muscles, swollen armpits, infections, massive heart attack, and shoulder dislocation, among others can be responsible for it
If you have sharp pain under left armpit and chest and you are suspecting it to be a heart attack, you might have other symptoms such as shortness of breath, pain in the left arm, upper neck, and jaw, toothaches, headache, heartburn, general malaise, sweating, dizziness, sweating, racing heart, lightheadedness, anxiety, among others, beside the squeezing and fullness of chest accompanied with pain.
If the pain, (dull or sharp) is not heart-related, see if it is reproducible as you carry on some activities such as lifting objects, weights, etc. Such could be due to strain, inflation of joints or muscles.
Furthermore, persistent pain is less likely to be related to heart but rather diseases such as arthritis or rotator cuff tendinitis. Finally, if you have “lightning-fast, sharp pains in the arm are also less likely to be related to heart disease, especially if brought on by moving the arm or neck” [livestrong.com].
In breast and underarm
When women experience pain in armpit and breast, their main worry is often if it is cancer. Yes, it could breast cancer or any other cause. This pain can spread to the underarm and down your arm to the shoulder blade.
In general, such a pain can be classified as cyclic, non-cyclic and chest wall pain. When caused by hormonal level changes especially during menstrual cycle characterized by “heaviness, tenderness, a burning, prickling or stabbing pain, or a feeling of tightness” [breastcancercare.org.uk]. Furthermore, lumpiness and general discomfort are common a few days before periods begin.
There is the non-cyclic breast pain where it can be constant or comes and goes, affecting women before and after menopause. Common causes include effect of procedures such as breast argumentation or enlargement (burning and aching is likely for a few days to weeks), early pregnancy, having large breasts, side effects of some medications, breastfeeding, or breast infection among many other causes
Finally, chest wall pain can result in armpit and breast that hurt, for instance, musculoskeletal pain due to pulling your chest muscles. Such pain that does not emanate from the breasts and could be sharp, and extend to your arm. You will tend to feel the pain if you apply pressure to your chest.
All of the above causes can result into this in a female. However, the specific causes that result or relate to pregnancy, breastfeeding, breast cancer, breast argumentation, after mastectomy. Depending on the cause, it might come with lump, no lump and can affect the right or even the left armpit.
Pain in left or right breast and armpit. It can be cyclical, non-cyclical or chest wall pain and can be associated with breastfeeding, breast problems, and other causes we have covered.
Except for those that affect only women, all the above causes can be responsible. Overworking in gyms, lifting heavy things, etc. can cause muscle injuries that result in a painful on armpit, shoulder, arm, etc.
Pain in left breast and armpit in male: Men can also suffer from this condition in breast and armpit areas. Problems such as gynecomastia (male breast enlargement and tendering in adolescent), use of some medications or hormones, cysts, fibroadenomas, cancer, etc.
Treatment options will depend on severity as well as the cause. Mild cases might go away on their own, the one that results from muscle strain might require some over the counter medications as well as some home remedies such as cold compresses while serious cases might require physical therapy, massages, prescribed medications (including antibiotics) and/or surgery.
Ensure you keep good personal hygiene, carefully shave your armpit hairs, avoid tight bras (especially to endowed women), take a warm shower, wear loose clothing, and avoid foods that make you sweat more such as oily and spicy foods.
Sources and references